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It’s standing-room-only on a recent Sunday at the Williamsburg club Zebulon, and the place hushes instantly as Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten takes a seat behind the microphone and unleashes her tremendous voice, as warming as the crowded but not cramped room, which is candlelit and mirrored, with vinyl-sleeve visages—Coltrane, Blakey, Sun Ra, Fela—lining the walls like stained glass in a church. Spurred on by TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone, she’d met with the Zebulon co-owners—two French brothers named Joce and Jef Soubiran—and not too long thereafter had a show, and then another, and then a night every month where she both plays and curates, another in a long line of young artists championed by the nearly five-year-old club. “It was very nurturing and encouraging,” she recalls. “In the most intimidating city for music I could possibly move to, I found a home at Zebulon.”
The Soubiran brothers’ familial and egalitarian methods of running the place (along with Guillaume Blestel) explain how their humble spot has become a public woodshed/clubhouse for some of New York’s (and Brooklyn’s, especially) most acclaimed musicians. Their commitment to never charging a cover and paying all acts the same certainly helps. “We treat everyone like human beings,” Jef says. “It is an honor.” Named after a zippy character from the ’60s French cartoon Le Manège Enchanté who bounced everywhere he went, Zebulon is very aptly named, exuding a pure and childlike adoration for the music it hosts: On any given night, folky singer-songwriters, rock bands, Brazilian Tropicália enthusiasts, Afrobeat purveyors, or free jazzers grace the stage and fill the room.
When the club first opened, though, it tilted heavily toward jazz, because that was the world the brothers came from, having cultivated relationships with the likes of Ravi Coltrane, Billy Bang, Charles Gayle, and Kenny Wollesen, all of whom count among the room’s earliest billings. In fact, Wollesen left what soon became the house drum kit behind after his first gig there, an appreciative gesture not lost on the musicians who’ve used it since. At first, however, attendance was a problem. In 2004, an artist friend from France visited Zebulon and drew a large-scale rendering (also available as a postcard) of the corner of Wythe and Metropolitan, the club tucked in next to a vacant lot on a deserted industrial block. Players accustomed to filling large venues all over the world would play to a near-empty room.
Little did the brothers know, however, that in the same neighborhood was Headgear Studios, headquarters for TV on the Radio; as those guys dropped by, and brought other fledgling artists passing through the studio along with them, Zebulon’s reputation grew. As the Soubirans were introduced to musicians covering a wider spectrum of styles and interests, the club’s programming followed suit. For Tony Lowe, from the Brooklyn-based, frantically textured rock band Skeletons, discovering Zebulon in 2005 was a revelation: “We had trouble finding people in New York City who liked both Albert Ayler and Gnaoua music, much less blasted it to their prime-time patrons. We’ve seen everything from throat-singing to existential theater to Marshall Allen playing a personal solo into the face of each of the 15 people left in the spot at 2 a.m. Joce and Jef are the city’s only true patron saints of fire music.”
The neighborhood, of course, looks much different today than it did in 2004: Cookie-cutter condos loom; there’s actual foot traffic now—people walking their dogs, tourists looking for galleries. Yet nothing has changed about how Joce and Jef behave. “This is not a jazz place,” Joce insists. “It is a music place, a song place.” Zebulon is attracting more and more national and international acts, but it’s the emphasis on the immediate surrounding neighborhood that makes the place truly special, for the players, the audiences, and the owners.